I had to review this film for its title alone! But it’s also a great movie, well worth 2 hours of your time (it’s just been released on Blu-ray). Based on the eponymous novella by Thomas Tryon – the actor-turned-author of The Other – this ode to Hollywood’s golden age reunited writer-director Billy Wilder and star William Holden, recalling their classic film noir, Sunset Boulevard. Once again Holden narrates a tale of a faded movie goddess, though at least not from the bottom of a swimming pool but, instead, from her funeral.
The following review is offered as part of the Tuesday’s Overlooked Film meme hosted by Todd Mason over at his fab Sweet Freedom blog.
“Her mirror was her only intimate, and she wanted its reflection to be the single most important statement she cared to make.”
Both the book and the movie begin with Fedora’s death and are narrated by Barry Detweiller, who had known her briefly in the 1940s and renewed the acquaintance shortly before she died. But in most other respects the two are very different. The novella (more of a short novel really at 100 pages of not the largest type) is the first of four loosely interlinked stories originally published in Tryon’s 1976 book, Crowned Heads, which was quickly snapped up by Universal in a deal said to be worth over $500,000 per novella. The project was ultimately put into turnaround by the studio (and the other novellas remain unfilmed), so Wilder ended up making the film in Germany having had to rather ignominiously hock the property to many potential investors. This inevitably fed into the final film’s rather jaundiced depiction of latter-day moviemaking.
Detweiller: “It’s a whole different business now … The kids with beards have taken over! They don’t need a script – just give ’em a hand-held camera with a zoom lens.”
TV reporter Marion Walker is after a scoop on the death of the celebrated Russian actress who took the secret of her seemingly eternal youth (she started in the silent era and was still starring in movies 40 years later, seemingly unchanged) to her grave. She asks old-time journalist Detweiller to help her out. He invites her over and tells her right away that he will spill all the beans about Fedora that he knows but that she won’t believe him and that anyway he is publishing his own biography so he won’t let her use it – is she still interested to hear his tale? This structure sets us up for a debunking of popular myths about Hollywood and a star clearly modelled on the liked of Garbo, Louise Brooks and Marlena Dietrich while its ‘Scheherazade’ structure (Detweiller will narrate the rest of the novella and concludes with a long, long section in which he reads from one of his books to a seemingly inattentive listener) invites us to take a very large pinch of salt in the telling of a very tall take indeed.
“You won’t believe it all even though my facts are unassailable. You’ll be flattered, because I have never told another person. And you’ll be very angry, because you can’t use it.”
Detweiller first met Fedora at the Louvre after his discharge at the end of the War. He finds her haughty and intelligent, utterly irresistible and yet remote and superior, a veteran of the silent era completely unmarked by the passage of time, due it is rumoured to the efforts of the shady Dr Vando, who runs a clinic in Switzerland. A decade later Fedora comes out of retirement and the world is once again astonished by her unmatched beauty. After 10 years reports of problems on set make her uninsurable and she finally retires for good. Detweiller tracks down her life-long friend, the Countess Sobryanski, to a small Greek island and discovers that Fedora is visiting – but is she in fact a prisoner? He attempts to find out, precipitating the tragic unravelling of a complex conspiracy.
Detweiller: “They had done a good job on her considering the messy way her life had ended”
Tryon’s book is a bit of a Roman à clef, its stories recalling real-life circumstances and rumours about such stars as Ramon Novarro and Clifton Webb. Fedora’s is a fictional story, though Tryon supports it with historical footnotes (some genuine, some not) and is stuffed with movie lore – but like the other stories in the book, it was inspired by a bizarre real-life claim that probably only hardened film buffs might know about. It came about during the divorce proceedings of former silent era actress, Corinne Griffith (you can read about her amazing life here). It would be a huge spoiler to give the details of what happened to her in 1966, but you can read about it here.
The screenplay by Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond takes the premise and main characters but reshapes and expands the material substantially. While Tryon’s novella’s is all about the surprise finish, the film has its big reveal at the halfway mark, turning the story away from mystery and more towards a tragic character piece. The film opens very cleverly with a sequence that may be a clip from a movie or a real event – Fedora had previously shot an adaptation of Anna Karenina and what we are presented here is a recreation from the suicide climax that could be from the 1935 version starring Greta Garbo – except here its Martha Keller in the title role. After throwing herself in front of a steam train we freeze frame – did we just see a clip? Well, no, and now we segue to a TV report on the great actress’ death – but is this what really happened or a recreation? Well, a bit of both, as movie lore and ‘so-called’ real-life are well and truly bound together here.
In the film Detweiller is a down on his luck independent film producer hoping to get Fedora out of retirement to star in a new version of … you guessed it, Anna Karenina. But the woman he finds seems frightened and being held against her will by the Countess and Vando (a great performance by José Ferrer), a character long dead in the novella. We then get a flashback to old Hollywood when Fedora and Detweiller had a brief fling. Keller plays Fedora throughout but, ironically given the age-related them of the film, Holden (who sadly was very much the worse for wear, prematurely aged by decades of hard drinking) is played as a young man by Stephen Boyd. This flashback within a flashback is the closest the film comes to Tryon’s somewhat oneiric storytelling, but otherwise this is a story in which the present is perpetually contrasted with the past as the various pieces of the puzzle inexorably fall into a series of concatenated flashbacks narrated by several of the mourners at the funeral. Like Sunset Boulevard, Wilder casts real-life celebrities as themselves – Henry Fonda and Michael York – which does disrupt the somewhat fragile facade of the the story’s reality, but in a story all about artifice and appearances, this is a daring move that does make sense.
Fedora: “Say ‘Hello’ to all my friends in Hollywood … those that are still around”
Along with Holden, Wilder was also reunited with Miklos Rozsa, who had already scored some of the director’s best-known films, including two mysteries: Double Indemnity (1944) and The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970). If the results here are not as memorable as these previous films, this is probably because the central conceit, when revealed, is admittedly as likely to cause as many titters as gasps; and the inevitable but actually unfair comparisons with Sunset Boulevard, which is actually a rather different sort of film. This is a much mellower enterprise from Wilder – but then, the tough young turk of the 1950 movie was now very much part of the old guard he had previously poked ironic sticks at. It’s great to see him and Holden back together again and if the comparison with their previous films (including Stalag 17 and Sabrina) doesn’t always do the new film any favours, it does give it a poignancy and very real sense of vanished romance that few films about the glory days of the studio system could really match. This all comes wrapped up in a story that doesn’t shirk from showing the at times terrifying price can be paid in the service of Art and Beauty.
DVD Availability: Long unavailable, this film has now been released in a restored edition on Blu-ray and DVD in Europe and the US – I have the German Blu-ray edition that presents the feature ia a completely English-friendly fashion though the new 90-minute making-of documentary produced by Robert Fischer has forced subtitles (except when interviewees speak German, at which point you’re on your own …). The US edition does not include the documentary, which is a real shame.
Director: Billy Wilder
Producer: Billy Wilder
Screenplay: Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond
Cinematography: Gerry Fisher
Art Direction: Alexandre Trauner
Music: Miklos Rozsa
Cast: William Holden, Marthe Keller, José Ferrer, Hildegard Knef, Mario Adorf, Frances Sternhagen, Henry Fonda (as himself), Michael York (as himself)